Dying in the rain

Rob Handfield-Jones March 29, 2011

During a recent experience driving in the rain at night, I was reminded of how little regard people have for the influence of wet roads on their ability to brake and swerve safely.

Rain, rain, go away!

Rain, rain, go away!

Many people claim that South Africans forget how to drive in the wet, but that’s incorrect. The real problem is that South Africans, when confronted with wet weather, continue to drive as if it were still dry. The two biggest pile-ups in South African history, which took place in consecutive years (1992 and 1993) at the same spot on the M1 in Midrand and involved 65 and 66 cars respectively, both happened in wet weather. Both crashes were attributable to a sudden change in traffic speed, occasioned in the first year by a spinning car and the second by a jack-knifed truck. The cars behind were doubtless following at the average South African following distance of around a quarter to a half a second, meaning that even those drivers who happened to be looking further ahead than the end of their bonnet simply had no braking or swerving space available to them and ploughed into the carnage.

Negligible

The attitude of many South African drivers is that they refuse to keep a following distance because then “people cut in front of them”. Of course, there’s no truth to this, it’s just one of those myths about driving that circulates endlessly. The truth is that every single comparative study between cars that keep a following distance and cars that don’t has returned the same conclusion: keeping a correct following distance has a negligible affect on arrival time. Neither does lane-hopping through traffic or attempting to use all one’s available traction while negotiating bends, but that rarely seems to deter the really hardened types who can’t resist doing their racing on public roads.

The scene was this: a lit freeway, four lanes wide, a speed limit of 120 but with rain sufficient to render 85km/h a safe speed, and this was the speed that the general flow of traffic was adhering to. In the left lane was a large truck travelling even slower, probably 45km/h or so, and I was in the next lane about 200 metres back, having pulled out to pass him. There was a car ahead of me in my lane, probably about 50 metres ahead of the truck, and also one in the lane to his right and slightly ahead. The right-hand lane was clear. And so, in this solid downpour on a waterlogged road, we all plodded along within a few km/h of each-other with plenty of margin for error. Until two idiots, in a Ford Fiesta and a Golf GTI respectively, managed to endanger every single one of us in their near-miss.

Wreckage

Both approached from behind at a speed I estimated to be no less than 140km/h. They then diverged, and idiot #1 in his GTI took to the left-hand lane, while idiot #2 continued in the lane next to mine. That was my cue to suck in my breath through my teeth because I had just passed a huge patch of standing water in the left-hand lane and I knew that if #1 hit it, lost control and spun to the right, he was going to take me out and probably push my wreckage into the path of #2. As it happened he got through it, zoomed past me, and didn’t see the truck ahead of him. For a moment I thought he was going to smash right into it, but then he cut across three lanes, narrowly missing the truck and the first car ahead.

Of course, he’d forgotten about idiot #2, who had to dive into the fast lane and stand on the brakes to avoid being taken out while #1 swerved left round the second car ahead, missing it by no more than a few feet. Undeterred, they both then vanished up the road at an even higher rate than that at which they had arrived.

There are two problems at play. The first is total, wanton disrespect for the law, which is a consequence of the traffic authorities ignoring all offences except exceeding the speed limit. I mean, technically these guys were probably only 20km/h over the speed limit, so they’d get a R250 fine and one AARTO demerit point, and that’s probably all the cops would be looking to nail them for. Big deal. But between them they committed no fewer than eight or ten life-threatening reckless manoeuvres, any one of which should have seen them locked up. I don’t know what it will take to make the traffic cops understand that if they enforce moving violations mercilessly, offence rates of all other types will drop in sympathy, but I’ve explained it to death in the past and shan’t do so again today.

War stories

The second problem is that we have too many drivers who hide their ignorance behind a façade of bravado. The type is familiar to me through many years running track and skidpan training sessions: bluff, swaggering yobbos with well-embellished “there-I-was-at-a-comfortable-240km/h” war stories. Ironically, they are often the first to freeze in panic when their car gets half sideways or they get put in the passenger seat and driven round a racetrack as a passenger.

Despite this, they commonly drive like morons on public roads, unaware that they are on the ragged edge of wiping out numerous people in a single go. It’s also striking how such a driving style persists long into middle age for many drivers, and occasionally beyond. I’m not sure how one communicates sense to these people and perhaps it’s a case of that favourite saying of a past boss of mine: “the problem with common sense is that it’s not common.” So, if you silently curse when someone flies past you at twice the actual safe speed in wet weather conditions, take heart that you’re not alone.

About Rob Handfield-Jones, the author

Rob's motto is "...cars, cars, cars..." and he's been a leading innovator in the field of driving skills training since 1989. Away from the serious stuff, Rob enjoys working on cars, writing about them and playing with them - he has numerous TV stunt-driving credits, many wins and lap records in circuit racing, and has also tried his hand at special stage rallying. He writes regularly on road safety issues for several publications and is a well-known radio commentator via his "On the road" road safety slot on Classic FM 102.7.